It’s only on rare occasions that Christians around the world celebrate Easter on the same day. More often, while Roman Catholics and some Protestants are singing "Jesus Christ is risen today!" Orthodox are still in the midst of lent or beginning a solemn Holy Week. While Orthodox Christians are keeping Good Friday in prayer and fasting, Western Christians have perhaps forgotten about the Crucifixion and making plans for Mother’s Day.
The idea of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches agreeing to a common date for Easter has been brought up in the past, but now Pope Francis, who has already shown an openness to greater ecumenical cooperation, has renewed that discussion.
According to a report by Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis signaled an openness to changing the date of Easter in the West so that all Christians around the world could celebrate the feast on the same day. Speaking at the World Retreat of Priests at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome June 12, the Pontiff said, “We have to come to an agreement” for a common date on Easter.
According to the Orthodoxwiki, Pascha—Easter—normally falls either one or five weeks later than the feast as observed by Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar.
The reason for the difference is that, though the two calendars use the same underlying formula to determine the festival, they compute from different starting points. The older Julian calendar’s solar calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian’s and its lunar calendar is four to five days behind the Gregorian’s.
Some Orthodox leaders have reflected on the dating of Easter. In May, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II wrote to the papal nuncio in Egypt suggesting a common date for Easter.
And just a week after the retreat for priests, Pope Francis and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch met at the Vatican and discussed their desire to work toward full communion of their Churches.
“We express our desire and readiness to look for new ways that will bring our Churches even closer to each other, paving the way for Antioch and Rome, the only two apostolic sees where St. Peter preached, to establish full communion,” Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem said.
According to Catholic News Service, the patriarch also expressed his Church’s readiness to come to an agreement to celebrate Easter on a common date. He said the Holy Synod of Antioch, motivated by the Second Vatican Council, adopted a resolution in 1981, expressing “the eagerness of our Church” to celebrate Easter “on a fixed Sunday in April” in common with other Christian churches.
The celebration of Easter “on two different dates is a source of great discomfort and weakens the common witness of the Church in the world,” he said, thanking Francis for recently “considering to take the initiative to lead the efforts on this matter.”
Historian Lucetta Scaraffia, writing in the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, said the Pope is offering to change the date “as a gift of unity with the other Christian churches.” A common date, she said, would encourage “reconciliation between the Christian Churches and …a sort of making sense out of the calendar.”
She noted that the proposal could help reinforce the identity of persecuted Christians, particularly those in the Eastern Churches that are at risk of disappearing.
Scaraffia wrote that a common date “would increase the importance of the central feast of the faith in a moment when changes seem to be suddenly coming throughout the world.”
But a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church expressed hope that the process of finding a common date would follow the tradition set by the Council of Nicaea in the Fourth Century, which established the feast at a time when the Church was united.
According to AsiaNews, Father Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department of External Church Relations, acknowledged that the Pope "wanted to make a real step forward towards the Orthodox. It is a gesture of good will."
He was hesitant to comment on the Pope’s proposal, as media reports did not include enough details on the specifics, he said, but he cautioned against any "radical change of our common traditions from the first millennium of Christianity."
"If the Church of Rome intends to abandon Easter according to the Gregorian calendar, introduced in the 16th century, and go back to the old one (Julian), used at a time when the Church of the East and West were united and used to date by the Orthodox, then this intention is welcome," he said. If, instead, the idea is to "have a fixed date for Easter and not tie it to the first full moon after the spring equinox, as established in the East and in the West by the Council of Nicaea in 325, then this proposal is totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church.”
The Russian priest noted that the Patriarchate of Moscow is at odds over Easter also with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. He said that a pan-Orthodox council to be held next year is expected to debate a review of the date on which to celebrate Easter.